The U.S. Army is America's primary land combat force, but about 150 soldiers are assigned to a job that leaves them surrounded by water: Army diver. These troops swim through all sorts of water from harbors to rivers to oceans to support Army logistics, engineering, and special operations.
Believe it or not, America's primary land combatant force has some of the best combat divers in the world. It may seem odd that the Army, tasked with "providing prompt, sustained, land dominance, across the full range of military operations and the spectrum of conflict" would have world-class divers. But the Army's swimmers are kept plenty busy.
The Army has two major classifications of divers: engineering and special operations. The engineering dive detachments make up the bulk of Army dive formations. Their primary mission is to conduct underwater engineering and disaster response.
Basically, these soldiers are responsible for making bridges safe, ensuring ports and harbors are stable and clear of dangerous debris, and clearing waterways like rivers. But they can also be sent to disaster response areas where they could conduct all of the above missions as well as search and rescue to save people in distress. They also provide emergency treatment for civilian divers suffering from decompression treatment.
That may not sound all that grueling. After all, welders don't have to be super buff, why would an underwater welder have to be some elite soldier?
Well, divers are doing construction tasks like welding, cutting, bolting, and more, but they're doing it while water presses against their bodies, they're carrying 30 pounds or more of tanks and compressed air, and they may have to constantly paddle to stay in position for their work.
And that's ignoring the mental fortitude needed to conduct dangerous operations underwater as cloudy water obscures vision, rushing water pushes against you, and the shadows of animals like gators or sharks pass over your body.
It's because of all that strain that Army divers have a reputation for being jacked (not that the other services' divers are any less fit, we're just talking about the soldiers right now).
Army dives are typically made with teams of at least four or five divers, depending on the equipment being used. But dive detachments have 25 personnel, allowing them to support operations at three locations at once if so ordered. Each of the three dive squads in a detachment has six people at full manning, and there are seven more people assigned to the headquarters.
Pfc. Stephen Olinger checks his oxygen levels prior to an exercise during Army Engineer Diver Phase II training at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Fla., Nov. 28, 2018.
(U.S. Army Joe Lacdan)
A single squad can be deployed within 48 hours of a mission notice, or the entire detachment can move out within seven days if they receive logistics and security support from a larger unit. These short-notice missions can often be assessing damage to key infrastructure after a hurricane or earthquake or search and recovery after a disaster. But the detachment can be tasked with anti-terrorism swims, underwater demolition and construction, or salvage as well.
As we hinted above, though, the Army has Special Forces divers as well. But these divers have a more limited set of missions. They primarily are tasked with conducting reconnaissance on target areas or entering or exiting an area of operations via the water. They can conduct some demolition raids and security missions as well.
Their list of missions includes mobility and counter-mobility, physical security, and more. Each Special Forces battalion has three combat diving teams.
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